No city in the world does Christmas quite like Copenhagen. For starters, the storybook streets already look like they’re lined with gingerbread houses, and the intensely jolly atmosphere of the place is so unique—in a blink, the Danish capital turns into a sparkling Christmas village, packed with bundled-up crowds.
Copenhagen’s Christmas festivities center in and around the historic Hotel d’Angleterre, which just celebrated its 260th anniversary. Facing Kongens Nytorv (the King’s New Square), the hotel’s regal façade resembles the idyllic miniatures inside a snow globe. It takes workers nearly three weeks to put up all the lights and decorations, including magnificent faux icicles, larger-than-life Nøddeknækkeren (The Nutcracker) soldiers, and a model of the hotel itself, constructed entirely of LEGO.
In late November, before a crowd of thousands, a brass band of soldiers in blue uniforms trumpets Christmas carols outside the hotel, drums roll, and the decorative lights turn on, signaling the julfest season open. The hotel's main display is a life-size montage that changes from year to year: the nativity scene, or playful polar bears frolicking among Christmas trees. While children gape, parents toast cups of gløgg—hot mulled wine infused with raisins, almonds, cardamom, and orange, strengthened with a shot of brandy. At this time, Tuborg releases its Christmas beer and bakeries start selling their special Christmas buns—soft and doughy, fragrant with cinnamon, and the perfect complement to strong Danish coffee.
Copenhagen city center is home to no less than seven different Christmas markets, including the pine-scented cabins on Kongens Nytorv, the fairy tale atmosphere of Hans Christian Andersen Christmas Market at Kultorvet, and the playful lights at Tivoli Gardens. Tree lights glow all along the chocolate-box scenes of Nyhavn, with its canal and boat masts. A hundred shop window displays illuminate the long walk down Strøget, where Danish design meets Nordic whimsy in the plethora of Christmas ornaments and voksalterys (alter candles) for sale. Browse for inventive wooden toys, royal porcelain, old-world candy canes, and chocolate wrenches (yes, you read that right). Even in today’s globalized market, Copenhagen offers toys, clothes, and jewelry that simply do not exist anywhere else.
Yet in the midst of this month-long shopping spree, Copenhagen Christmas is still far more inspiring than commercial. Despite the chill, it's a time of being outside, watching puppet shows, riding merry-go-rounds, and hearing Christmas concerts. Visiting Vor Frue Kirke (Church of Our Lady) is a must. The National Cathedral of Denmark is open late into the night and is noted for its original Christus by Danish sculptor Berthel Thorvaldsen, which is preceded by a series of flickering candles and enveloped entirely in gold. Advent services run through December, featuring an angelic boys’ chorus, and on the 24th, the cathedral plays host to what may be the most extraordinary midnight mass in Europe—a candlelit, reverential, and truly memorable service, even for the non-religious.
A more earthy Danish tradition is the julefrokost, or “Christmas party,” which typically takes the form of a schnapps-fueled office get-together in which indiscretion is expected. Most Copenhagen restaurants offer a special holiday menu for the occasion, available to all. Not to be missed is the affordable, Michelin-starred Marchal in Hotel d'Angleterre, with its fanciful interpretation of smoked eel (with shallots and seaweed mayonnaise) and duck breast (with kale, vadouvan, and Gammel Dansk). For amazing Christmas cakes, explore Conditoriet La Glace.
During winter, many people in the northern hemisphere huddle up inside or, if they can, head south to somewhere warmer. But in a world where Christmas seems more and more the same, December in Copenhagen still remains distinctive, festive, and so wonderfully personal.